After college graduation, two friends and I embarked on a month-long road trip throughout the United States. One friend’s grandfather had contacts in the northern California wine industry and set up free VIP tours and tastings at Sterling Vineyards and Domaine Chandon for us. I didn’t drink wine at the time, but it sounded grown up, sophisticated, and fun.
After arriving at Sterling, we rode a gondola up to the winery and were greeted by our own special tour guide. She led us through the winery and the wine making process. In the barrel room, she demonstrated proper wine tasting techniques and discussed the three wines we sampled there. Later in the tour, we tasted reserve wines on a secluded rooftop balcony.
The tour ended at the winery café. We thought our tour guide would say goodbye, and we would eat lunch there. Instead, she led us into a large private room with a wall of windows overlooking the vineyards. Antique furniture held a gourmet buffet lunch. In the center of the room was a single table set for four with four wine glasses at each place setting.
I didn’t drink wine before that visit, but I started to afterwards. I also began to visit other wineries and attend wine festivals. Later, my interest in wine grew to the point where I completed internationally-recognized wine certifications and other wine courses.
Over the years, I have visited more than 275 wineries or tasting rooms. In fact, most of my holiday travel is wine focused. My reading list includes wine-related books, magazines, and online news items. I have initiated wine tasting groups for my own education and have been paid to lead events for others.
When I traveled to Budapest in May 2013 for a job interview, I found a diverse and quality selection of Hungarian wines way beyond the Tokaji Aszú and Egri Bikavér (aka Bull’s Blood) that represent the country on U.S. shelves. I also found amazing values.
After accepting the job and moving to Hungary, I began to visit the local wine regions and found an industry that was rebuilding after the Communism days of quantity over quality and was gaining ground quickly.
I found the dry wines of Tokaj, the fantastic reds of Villány, and unknown grapes that I struggled to pronounce but gladly drank. I also found wineries that produced excellent yet small lots that were content to sell in Hungary only and mostly Hungarian-language websites.
What I didn’t find was much English-language information about the Hungarian wine industry. Of course, Hungary is not alone in this. In a February 2015 trip to Spain’s Ribera del Duero region, I was surprised at the lengths I had to go to organize a wine tasting excursion.
The region offers an incredible wine and food experience, both in quality and value, but as an entity, it is not ready for the English-language or international tourism that the wines themselves can inspire.
During my time in Hungary, I saw many business-related gaps in the country’s wine industry. The more I learned of these areas for development, the more I became motivated to get involved and help solve them. That led me to seek out wine degree programs that would provide the knowledge and tools I needed to do so.
I looked mostly in Italy and France and found an English-language program in Burgundy. Not a bad place to study wine, even though Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are admittedly not my favorite grapes, unless they’re in bubbly form.
That Sterling Vineyards visit was a fun moment in time for my friends, but for me it was much more. The experience planted a seed that I am harvesting now.
So here I am in mid-life, making a complete career change. Or at least trying to. I’m a month and a half into my program. Sometimes it’s great to be back in school, and sometimes it’s weird. But weird can be good. Weird can be boundary-stretching. Weird can be just the thing we need in our lives.
Why wine? Because that’s where I am in life right now. Maybe you should try for a little weird—and a little wine—in your life.